Pavement’s Musique Concrete

The trouble with making ennui, emotionlessness, and cynicism the aesthetic center of your art is that it puts you in an immediate bind. If boredom is the proper intellectual response to the prevailing cultural or political climate, why create at all? Why get emotional about the fact that there’s nothing worth getting emotional about? And if cynicism marks the era, isn’t railing against it quaint and outdated? Such mental circles exemplify the Zen of Pavement, the members of which have nothing to say, find the kind of music they play pointless, and consider most of its practitioners frauds. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, they say–and then let the phrase lie.

Musically, the band’s solidly into the usual indie low-fi head trip: blurts of guitar noise, clattery drumming, coursing solos from the mysteriously named guitarist Spiral Stairs, and the conversational, singsong delivery of Steve Malkmus. The new Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the band’s second studio album. On their first, Slanted and Enchanted, they were rigorously obscurantist, the better to make it clear that nothing really mattered. The rather irritating twist to both albums, however, is that the band makes it clear that it can create music that matters when it wants to. It did so, somewhere between half- and whole- heartedly, with the stately march and burbly beauty that marked its 1992 single “Summer Babe.”

Weary of what was otherwise unrelieved obfuscation, or perhaps having simply matured (Slanted was recorded in 1990), the group decided to make its prejudices plain: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a fairly explicit (by Pavement standards) concept album about rock ‘n’ roll. Where old-fashioned romanticists like Townshend or Ian Hunter defiantly celebrated their music, and even punks like Elvis Costello limited their commentary to howls of betrayal, Pavement’s piercing indiecentric eyes note the music’s breaks, seams, and pressure points while delivering news of their findings with a detached but-who’s-counting nonchalance. On the record’s first single, “Cut Your Hair,” Malkmus blandly mocks both the wide-eyed wonder of fans (“Music scene is crazy / Bands start up each and every day / I saw another one, just the other day / A special new band”) and himself for noticing (“I don’t care, I care / I really don’t care / Did you see the drummer’s hair?”). On the similarly mocking (and tres “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”-esque) life-on-the-road song “Range Life,” the band lights into teen faves like the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots with enough venom to make the point, but also with enough abstraction and ennui to make it plain that it won’t defend its views if pressed. (The same ambivalence shows up in a veiled reference to Winona Ryder dating Dave Pirner, from Soul Asylum, in “Stop Breathin”: “Does he sleep with electric guitars? / Range rovin’ with the cinema stars / And I wouldn’t want to shake their hands.”) In the closing “Fillmore Jive,” they beg for euthanasia in the face of nothingness (“This is the end of the rock ‘n’ roll era”), but Malkmus puts a melodramatic spin on the line to show they don’t care this way or that.

All of this can be fairly irritating, and the whole affair is made worse by the band’s insistence on marrying such fence sitting to some of the most compelling rock music of the day: just on what we would have called in the old days the first side, you get the thrilling “Silence Kit,” the awesome guitar arrangement and irresistible “Oo-oo-oo” chorus of “Cut Your Hair,” and the blistering, Sonic Youth-like attack of “Unfair.” At the same time Mallmus, after hinting at his talents on Slanted, finally lets his supple and protean voice roam where it will: a laconic conversation on one track, a gorgeous scream the next, a languid drawl the one after that. So why be so good at saying nothing in particular? What’s Pavement really about? Malkmus tells us at the climactic end of the first song:

Screwin’ myself with my hand.



Thurston’s and the Elbo Room, which face each other on George Street just east of Lincoln, have teamed up for a weekend of regional buzz bands March 25 and 26. A single $6 cover lets you wander back and forth between six or eight bands each night; Friday’s lineup includes Throneberry, a Cincinnati band produced by Afghan Whig Greg Dulli, and locals Fig Dish and Triple Fast Action. On Saturday there’s Champaign’s Hum, the Minneapolis band Hang Ups, and Rollinghead from Kalamazoo….Q101 has produced a new local-music compilation, due in stores this week. Random Acts, programmed by jock Carla Leonardo, host of the station’s Sunday-night “Local Music Showcase,” includes a new track from Die Warzau, music from Catherine, Big Hat, Brown Betty, and Ike Reilly, and a blistering live blast at “What Girls Want” from Material Issue. Proceeds benefit Clara’s House, a shelter for battered and homeless women. The record-release party, featuring contributors Certain Distant Suns, the Lupins, and They Came in Droves, is an early show Saturday at Metro.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gail Butensky.